Three forms of failure

Failure always involves an error of judgement. I took the wrong course of action. I made inaccurate predictions. I missed an important factor. I estimated that something would work out, and it didn’t.

Yet failure can take three distinct forms, that I have rarely seen distinguished explicitly. Let’s call them Failure #1, Failure #2, and Failure #3

Failure #1. I knew precisely what I wanted to do, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, but it wasn’t executed properly. I failed to do the thing altogether, or I made a fatal mistake, or I was too slack on quality. Nobody came to the party, because I forgot to send my invitations, or I put in the wrong title on my emails and it all went to spam, or I wrote such poor text that people chose not to come.

Failure #2. I knew precisely what my goal was, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, and I executed everything well. Still, things didn’t work out, because the plan was off. I made wrong assumptions about the world, or omitted a major factor. I sent my invitations on time, but nobody came, because it was the World Cup Final that evening, or people simply won’t leave their house for a ‘strategic storytelling’ night. 

There is a measure of overlap between those two types of failure. The boundaries between execution quality and relevance of the model are often blurry. Was my invitation badly written, or was it not pitched appropriately? Should I blame myself for ‘poor execution’, or consider it a clear case of bad judgement, that I overestimated my capacity to get things done. Lack of self-awareness is common, dangerous, and a lame excuse. 

Failure #3 is different. Here, there’s a proposed course of action, execution works out, and things went according to plan. Except, the goal was hazy somewhat, and so, after the deed is done, the praise doesn’t ring right: what you achieved is not exactly what you set out to do. With this comes confusion and frustration. People came to the party, they would come again, some enjoyed themselves. But that elusive magic you were hoping for, that thing-whatever-it-was, it never happened.  

I believe this to be the bitterest type of failure, and the least acknowledged. It is particularly common when we try to build something bold, radical and new. We need people to work with us, but the goal is somewhat unclear, or goes against common wisdom, so we simplify it, we make it more generic, in order to bring them on-board. In the course of things, as other people join the team, that intuitive goal gets lost. The loudest impose their views. The dumbest flatten our nuances. The most narrow-minded stifle our ambition. The most narcissistic hijack our project to satisfy their ends. Whether malice, negligence – or good intentions gone to seed – this happens all the time.

Failure 1 and Failure 2 can yield precious nuggets of wisdom, and knowledge about the world. Those are the failures we can learn and grow from. Not so Failure 3, or at least not so directly. At best, it offers a chance to take perspective, figure out where the path actually led, or what the north star was. Then, maybe we can nail the goal properly this time, so we can try again, and eventually get there, or at least meet failure #1 or #2, and learn something specific, and precious.  

On sitting and standing

Why have we chosen the sitting position as a modern default?

Last night, I went on a long walk to the beach, and today, I decided I would stand to work. And so I did, at home first, while I focused on tw0 simple tasks: learning how to use Endnote, and sorting old folders of research documents. I put my laptop on a fat book, the book on a stool, the stool on a table, and I stood in front of this improvised platform all morning, happily typing. Result: no sore shoulders, and a nice feeling in my stomach that I got a wee bit more toned.

The slogan of 2014 was ‘sitting is the new smoking’. It might echo still in other ears than mine. But as public places used to favour smokers over non-smokers, our social environment is entirely designed for sitters.

We may hold a fake belief that special artifacts are required for sitting, chairs, couches, or stools, while we can stand on our own two feet. Not so. I sit on the floor whenever I can. And if you stand and read, eat, or type, you want a space to lean the book, plate, or laptop. But not often will we find such standing set-ups, and so, defaulting into the shape that our environment proposes, we sit.

After I finished my morning work-from-home, I headed to my second office, in the QV food court. The place has been recently redone, and has very comfortable tables and chairs where you can sit for a whole afternoon without any cover charge. But there are only three tall tables where you could stand and rest a laptop, hidden under the main escalators, opposite the BreadTop bakery.

One of the tables was free. I pushed aside the white metal-mesh stool, set my computer on it, and stood for a couple of hours, drafting the outline of my thesis. Then I headed back one, and went on a long walk to North Fitzroy. And as I did, I spoke with my partner about replacing a large, red armchair in our living room with a standing station. It would certainly change my daily routines, inviting me to stand for breakfast, maybe dinner, or when friends come over.

But even as I can perfectly visualise the piece of furniture that I would need, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at a friend’s place, I have no clue where I could buy it, or what its name would be. So much we made sitting our default posture.


How Translation can help you learn Chinese

So, I made it to the pages of Hacking Chinese, talking about the benefits of translation Chinese-English for language learning.

Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?

This was the introduction to my post – you can read the full piece here

Music I love

This is just a whimsical little post, sharing music that I love.

Celia Cruz, El Sabroso son Cubano

The Supremes, Where did our love go

Barbara, Ma plus belle histoire d’amour c’est vous

Chris Garneau, Hands on the Radio

Cheer Chen, 魚

στελιος καζαντσιδις, κουρασμενο παλικαρι

Chet Baker, I fall in love too easily

Getz & Gilberto, Desfinado

Radiohead, No Surprises

Madredeus, As Brumas do Futuro